If Something Feels Wrong, Speak Up

How I used my story to advocate for grad students
FEB 2020
Alyssa
R.
Physics

This post is part of a special issue: "Mental Health Matters: Asking for Help & Reaching Out".

My first year of grad school at MIT was no piece of cake. I struggled to understand what was going on in lab, classes felt like they were ganging up on me, and everything came to a head while studying for my written qualifying exams. The ordeal of these competing responsibilities under minimal guidance led me to seek mental health care for the first time in my life. Although I’m doing much better now, the feeling that I don’t belong at MIT never entirely disappeared. 

After I passed my written qualifying exams, I started to wonder how I could potentially make the path in grad school easier for those who follow me. I believe no one needs to be pushed to the brink of a mental breakdown in order to achieve whatever narrow definition of “success” academia peddles. By talking with people in and out of my own department, I met other students who think so too. Through word-of-mouth, we created Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT, a mental health advocacy group.

As our first move, we decided to share op-eds of graduate student experiences in hopes that they could help people feel less alone and would start important conversations on mental health. Although I was initially terrified at the thought of being exposed as an imposter by telling my own story, the unwavering support and reassurance from this group of dedicated students led me to publish an article in the Tech detailing my struggles within the structure of the MIT physics department. I concluded that, if my story could help someone else, it was well worth sharing.

My article went live on a Thursday morning, and, shortly after, I had a flood of emails in my inbox. My correspondents included a tenured physics faculty member I had never met, the Office of Graduate Education, the head of the Committee of Student Life, the academic and administrative assistants of the MIT physics department, administration from the Harvard physics department, my advisor, and many fellow grad students. In most cases, they thanked me for telling my story and expressed support. They reiterated that I could meet with them to talk through any issues I was having. They all also wanted to know more details so that they could make changes to the Institute.

Since then, I’ve met with almost all of these groups and individuals. Describing my struggles repeatedly has been taxing, but these discussions have already started to spur change. The physics department has committed to creating a shadow advising structure for graduate students, based off the model in the Harvard Physics department. Under this structure, there will be a faculty member whose primary goal is to be a neutral, third party guide for grad students as they wade through academic bureaucracy and stresses. On top of this, grad students throughout the physics department have been having open conversations about mental health with each other. Many have told me that their advisors used my article as required reading for lab-wide discussions on well-being.

I was completely caught off-guard by the wide response to my article. Before helping to form Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT, I was sure that I was alone. I was sure that no one at MIT cared to try and make a positive difference to the culture. Luckily, I was proven wrong. MIT has a strong shared culture among grad students. Although we may be siloed in different departments or working on different degree requirements, we all have periods where we feel alone, feel the structure isn’t working for us, or feel like we don’t belong. In these moments, try to reach out to your fellow students. Reach out to your lab mate, your classmate. Reach out to me. You’ll be surprised how many other students feel the same way and want to do something about it. Together, we might feel confident enough to tell our stories. Together, we might even make MIT a better place for those to come.